A bit of a paradox: the song is the central unit of rock music, but careers are made by albums, not single songs. While the derogatory sense of the term “one-hit wonder” is perhaps unfortunate (there are plenty of bands who’ve never written one decent song – and even the most blatant hackwork of a hit single has at least something to recommend it…catchiness, usually), it’s true that if a band can’t consistently write good songs, and (squaring the circle) consistently assemble them into albums better in their particular sequence than a random sequence of their component tracks, they’ll be relegated to the lower tiers of rock history.
Maybe the clearest illustration of that “greater than the sum of its parts” theory is the way songs that seem like filler – or even tracks that don’t rise to the level of song as such – end up contributing an essential flavor to albums, such that when they’re removed, the album as a whole doesn’t work as well. Those minor tracks and experiments function rather in the way spices do: you wouldn’t want to eat a spoonful of paprika, but that doesn’t mean you should just leave it out of the recipe.
All of which leads to me to a confounding new release: a tribute album, a track-by-track remake of The Clash’s Sandinista! (That exclamation mark is part of the title, not an expression of my incredulity…although on second thought, it probably would have been if I’d written this when I first heard of the project). Generally regarded as The Clash’s worst album (project compiler Jimmy Guterman correctly notes that Cut the Crap doesn’t count – any more than that Yule Brothers -led “Velvet Underground” album belongs in that band’s canon), Sandinista! seemed to some to be the moment the original punk rock dream died…of suffocation, in the same overweaning bloat and ego that it had been born against. Well, that’s all rather melodramatic – and the fact is, I’ve always liked Sandinista!, precisely because of its weirdness (but then, I was never a punk true believer, at least not at the point “punk” described a list of do-nots). Still, even though there’ve been several Clash tributes already, you’d think this might be the last album to get the song-by-song remake treatment.
In fact, there are several good reasons to choose Sandinista! for this project. One is, even if it’s the Clash’s worst album, the Clash’s worst album is still a hell of a lot better than a lot of lesser bands’ best albums. More to the point: as I’ve written elsewhere, sometimes it’s necessary for a band to do a “bad” album in order to get to some other kind of good album. (The Clash followed this one with Combat Rock – which focused and concentrated the weirdness as color and texture: a lot of people don’t like that album either, but that’s another discussion…) The best reason, though, is that the often surpassingly odd arrangement choices (sometimes you can nearly see a choking cloud of purplish gray smoke emanating from the studio, somehow coming through your very own speakers…) are not the sorts of things most bands are going to mechanically reproduce in photo-accurate remakes; instead, they’re rightly seen as versions of the song, a song whose skeletal structure is legible (sometimes only barely) underneath those odd arrangements. So the bands are generally compelled to do the best thing you can do in remaking a song: re-make re-model (hello Bryan).
And the effect is paradoxical: on the one hand, the song underneath the song is often brought out, to the extent that in some of the tracks on The Sandinista! Project, it took a few bars for me to remember…”oh yeah, this track!” Which leads to the other duck: the remakes actually inspired me to return to the original. That impulse, from covers, is often misunderstood, I think. The idea isn’t “oh god this version sucks so horribly, I must hear the original to get that awful noise out of my ears” (to cut the crap, in other words…although sometimes, that can happen…) but to relisten to the original and hear it anew, to notice aspects of it, emphasized in the cover, that you’d perhaps failed to notice the first time.
A good number of remakes on The Sandinista! Project, for example, are done in a rootsy, country-western style…and you realize that, hey, Joe Strummer could have been Jon Langford and become a credible country songwriter. (By “country,” of course I do not mean Hat Pop…) And even the most gestural tracks on the original CD – the ones that sound like riffs ladled over with production sauce – get made into actual songs (because the song was there in the first place, just more hinted at than played), at least in most cases. Not everything on the album is golden (how could it be? that would in some senses betray the nature of the original, whose experimentation – the free-for-all notion that “punk” could be any damned thing you wanted to be, that it could, in fact, toss the rather boring requirement that everything even succeed out the window), but rather more of it than you might expect is pretty damned fine.
Four tracks that illustrate some of those ideas:
Buy The Sandinista! Project (amazon.com link: neither of the indie online stores in my links appears to be stocking this at the moment)